Rookie Salaries, Bonuses Complicate Labor Debate

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

The biggest issue dividing NFL owners and the players' union as they prepare for a new set of labor negotiations is what percentage of league revenue should go to players under the salary cap system. Owners say the current deal giving players close to 60 percent is overly favorable to them. Union chief Gene Upshaw says there won't be any givebacks.

But there are other issues as well, which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners made clear after Tuesday's unanimous vote by the owners to terminate the labor agreement two years early. Among the owners' issues are the escalation of rookies' salaries and the inability of teams under the current rules to recoup bonus money from certain players, including Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

Both issues could be divisive, with Upshaw saying he doesn't intend to make concessions on those matters, either.

The rookie pay issue was highlighted Tuesday when, hours after the owners voted to exercise the reopener clause in the labor agreement, the Falcons announced that they had signed quarterback Matt Ryan to a six-year contract. The deal reportedly will pay Ryan, the third overall selection in the NFL draft last month, as much as $72 million, including $34.75 million guaranteed.

General managers and other front-office executives around the league have been saying for months that they felt something needed to be done to curb the escalation of salaries for just-drafted players. Why, they wonder, should a player such as Ryan, who hasn't thrown a single NFL pass, have a contract more lucrative than that of a three-time Super Bowl winner such as the New England Patriots' Tom Brady? Those executives say there perhaps should be a system by which a rookie would be assigned a predetermined contract value based on his draft slot.

A written statement issued by the league Tuesday in conjunction with the owners' vote called it "irrational" that "in the current system some rookies are able to secure contracts that pay them more than top proven veterans."

But Upshaw said the union won't agree to a rookie wage scale. There already are mechanisms in place under the current collective bargaining agreement, he said, to control rookies' salaries. Each team is assigned an annual rookie pool, essentially a salary cap for rookies within the overall cap. There also are rules limiting the length of rookies' contracts.

Upshaw said the union isn't willing to go further than that because the growth in rookies' salaries sets a standard that all players, including veterans, can use to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

There are limited opportunities for players to raise the salary bar, said Upshaw, who added: "If you take one of those options away, you have to be very careful about it. Also, we're dealing with such short careers with our rookies and with our players that if you entered into some type of scale or some type of structure for a rookie, it wouldn't make any sense in our business."

The owners also raised objections to the rules governing teams' ability to recover bonus money from players under certain circumstances. Vick is serving a 23-month federal prison sentence for his role in a dogfighting operation and is on indefinite suspension by the NFL. The Falcons attempted to recover nearly $20 million of the $37 million in bonuses in Vick's 10-year, $130 million contract. But they were limited by the NFL's rules on the issue and a precedent set in a case involving wide receiver Ashley Lelie. U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who oversees the sport's labor deal, ruled that the Falcons were entitled to recover only $3.75 million.

"It's probably highlighted in large part by the Michael Vick issue," Goodell said. "There are other cases, Ashley Lelie and other cases. But in the Michael Vick case, he's not able to play football and as such he got a significant signing bonus, and we're not able to recover that. That's money that could be going to players that are playing the game right now."

But Upshaw said teams aren't entitled to money already paid to players in bonuses and the union won't agree that the language in the collective bargaining agreement addressing the topic should change.

"If a player earns money, he's entitled to keep the money he's earned," Upshaw said. "What they're trying to capture is money that the players have already earned. We're never going back to that situation."

The owners' vote to exercise the reopener clause means that the labor deal now expires after the 2010 season; the 2009 season is the final one in the agreement with a salary cap. Upshaw has said he expects the owners to consider a lockout of players in 2011.

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